A Father's Love

Luke 15

In the OT, the concept of the “Fatherhood” of God was vague – it was used generally to convey the idea that God was the originator of the nation of Israel.  But in the NT we have this picture of a very personal God – God is called “Father” 250 times.  The reason Jesus chose this metaphor was to communicate how God feels about his people.  The question was asked, “Why do you hang around this riff-raff?  Don’t you know that God has no use for these people?”  And the answer was “NO! These people do matter to God.” And that’s the point of Luke 15.

How does a father feel?  All of us parents struggle with how to love our children.  One of the questions we have to wonder is why did the son want to leave?  Didn’t the father raise him in the way he should go?  Why did this boy, who had the best father a son could have, go another way?

What does a father feel?

A father feels the high cost of loving another.  A price comes with parenting.  Have you ever loved someone so much it hurt? The birth of a child and holding that baby for the first time is overwhelming. It was so strong it almost hurt.  Even as much as I love my wife, that love grew over weeks and months – as we grew to know each other and fall in love with each other and finally commit our lives to each other.  But with a child you love profoundly, instantly.  As I watched each of them being born my heart was bound to them instantaneously.

There is a tribe of Indians in Mexico – when translators went to bring the Bible to them in their indigenous language, they found they had a unique definition of love.  It came out: “the pain in the heart.”  And so the translators in John 3:16 phrased it: “For God so hurt in his heart…”  Some of you parents know what I’m talking about. It is one of the most powerful, intense emotions you can experience.

There are dangers that come with being a parent:

1)  The risk of increased freedom – Notice that the father gave his son the freedom to fail. He didn’t chase him down the road begging him to stay. He didn’t stop him, because home wouldn’t be home to a boy whose heart always longed for the far country. (There comes a time when a child, hell-bent on their own destruction needs to be allowed to go.)

2)  The threat of outside influence – As your children get older you can’t protect them from everything evil they are going to encounter.  You have no control over that and it scares you and pains you to know they will experience hurts and dangers you can’t protect them from.

3)  There is the pain of knowing someday there is going to be someone your child is going to love more than his parents.  You give your children roots, but then you have to give them wings.  There comes a time when you have to let them go to begin a life of their own.  I don’t know about you, but that isn’t easy.  If there is one thing that would always give me a lump in my throat it was thinking about that – it’s the cost of loving your children.

4)  Then there is the pain of losing each other.  It’s one thing to have your child walk down the aisle as they leave home – it’s another to have them storm out the door and slam it behind them, shouting, “I’m never coming back to this house again.”  This younger son isn’t just getting away from the farm, he’s getting away from the father – he’s saying, “I reject YOU and everything you stand for!” 

Now, how would a father feel?  Some of you know, some have heard the door slam, some have been the one who slammed the door.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans. My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”  (Hosea 11:1-9) 

How does a father feel when his children leave him?  Mixed emotions – part angry, part sad.

I heard the story of a teenage son – the son of a minister.  He had rejected his parents’ values and rebelled against their lifestyle.  He continued to live in their home but he would go out every night and return early in the morning in a drunken stupor and fall into bed and never speak to his parents.  One night, the father awoke in the middle of the night to hear the sound of a voice coming from his son’s room down the hallway.  He walked to the door and looked in and found his wife kneeling at their son’s bed holding his hand and praying over his drunken form.  She looked up at him, and with tears streaming down her face, she said, “he won’t let me love him when he’s awake.”

You tell me, how does a father feel?

But then there is also the joy of reunion:  “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  So 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.  The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:17-24)

Notice, he’s not going back to the farm but to the father.  Now, how did he feel?

We just read, “While he was a long way off the father saw him.”  Why?  He was looking for him.  The father never changes –the son changes profoundly, but the father remains constant in his love.

Then it says, “He was filled with compassion for him.”  He felt it in his gut, in the pit of  his stomach.  Every time that word “compassion” is used by Jesus, it always leads to an action which sets somebody’s life on a new course.

And then it says, “He ran to his son.”  In that day and time it was considered improper for an older man to run, to hitch up his robes and race down the road – it was undignified. But sometimes joy is just too great to be contained by protocol.  This is a reunion, there are hugs, tears, joy.  This is the only time in the Bible when God is in a hurry.  The only thing that will get God in a hurry is when a sinner is coming home.

Finally, “he threw his arms around him and kissed him.” 

A dad’s arms can say a lot:

  • He can cross his arms – “I just dare you to step in this house…”

  • He can raise his arms – “Now what am I going to do with you?”

  • He can put out his arms – “I love you this much”

The son begins his speech… the father interrupts…

The father doesn’t need speeches from his boy who has come home. The father was focused more on present repentance than on previous rebellion. The bottom line is, he restores his boy to sonship. He allowed confession, but not concession (none of this talk of being a hired hand – you are my son).

How does a father feel?  He feels the inward struggle of giving his boy what he needs instead of what he deserves – positive reinforcement instead of punishment.

This story is a challenge to us: 

First, to alter our view of God – God is preeminently, more than anything else a father. It’s life’s most profound revelation.  If you say, “That’s too good to be true!” you’re starting to get the point of Luke 15.  It is too good to be true, but it is true.  We struggle to believe people could matter to God that much. 

Jesus’ critics didn’t struggle with this – they knew people didn’t matter to God. They didn’t have dealings with sinners because they didn’t think God did.  Jesus responded, “Is that how a father would feel?” 

The single most important thing for you to get straight in your life is who you think God is and what you think God is like.  It will affect your life, your relationships, your theology, the way you treat people.

The irony in Luke 15 is that only one son saw the father. The other might as well have been a thousand miles away. So it’s a challenge to alter your view of God.

Second, to alter our view of sinners. We have a lot of labels for sinners, but what does God call them?  Lost children.  Luke 15 is written to people like you and me who have crossed the bridge of forgiveness and now we want to turn around and blow it up so no one else can get across.  Pagans may be prodigals, but they’re not pigs.  They belong to the Father and he wants them back. 

So churches need to go to Luke 15 and have their values and their ministries shaped by the heart of God.  If we take Luke 15 seriously, there will be people who accuse and criticize the church and say you are compromising.  How dare you reach out to people like them?

If we get serious about reaching out to people around us with problems – the homeless, those in jail, unwed mothers, fatherless families, people with AIDS, people in gangs – who would have been more at home with the sinners at Levi’s party in Luke 5 than with the upstanding folks at Simon’s party in Luke 7.

Some will say, “You’ve gone too far, what do you think the church is?”  I’ll tell you what it is: a place where lost children find their father, a hospital where the spiritually sick find healing, a family where every individual can find love and acceptance.  Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…” (Lk 5:31-32)

A third lesson – God will always be there. God will meet anybody at the altar.  Jesus was telling the Pharisees that God would always be there for sinners, even if they wouldn’t.  It is a profound lesson about the nature of God for those of us who try to imitate our Father – who desire more than anything to be remade in his likeness.

It’s actually a true story. In fact, the man’s name was G.W. Rosenberry, and he was a Methodist minister around the turn of last century, and his story inspired a song entitle, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” It seems Mr. Rosenberry was on a train in the Midwest, and he was in a compartment with a young man who seemed very nervous and anxious. Being a minister he asked, “Son, you seem very nervous, is there anything I can do for you?” And the young man told him his story: A few years earlier this son and his father who had had a history of bad relations had a parting of the ways – in fact, they had even had a fistfight. And the son left the farm and in anger had told his father, “You will never see my face again.” But after several years away from home, the young man had a change of heart. He told Mr. Rosenberry, “I wrote mom and asked her, “Will you tell dad I’m sorry and I want to come home.  I don’t know if dad wants to see me again, but do this: the train runs right by the house, and if he does want to see me, have him tie a little white ribbon on the mailbox where I can see it. And if I don’t see the ribbon, I’ll just stay on the train and keep going and I’ll never bother you again.” And he said, “Mr. Rosenberry, our farm is just around the bend coming up and I’m too nervous, will you look for me?” And the boy put his face in his hands and trembled.  Mr. Rosenberry looked and he said, “Son, you have to see this for yourself.” And there on that farm was a sea of white – white ribbons, white sheets, white streamers – tied to the house, the mailbox, the trees, and fences, everything that could hold it had a white ribbon tied on it. And the last image that G.W. Rosenberry had of that boy was of him carrying two suitcases running up that dusty road as fast as his legs would carry him home… and a father coming through the gate to meet him.

That’s the picture of God that Jesus paints for us in Luke 15.