Speaker: Helen Jenkinson
Have you ever had the experience of longing for home?
It might be when you’re stuck in traffic during a really long journey. I remember, coming home for the weekend when I used to live down south, and sitting in a Friday night queue on the M6 around Birmingham imagining the welcome (and cuppa!) that would be waiting for me when mum and dad answered the door.
Or, it could be that you’re in a stressful or even dangerous situation and your longing is to be in a safe place. Have you ever had the experience of seeing certain lights appear on your car dashboard and ignoring them, hoping that what they mean is not too costly?
This happened to me and Lizzie last Christmas. Just out delivering (as you do) and as we’re on the way home from Wendy and Barry’s, the dash starting lighting up like a Christmas tree and suddenly it felt like I was driving a tank! No power steering, engine chugging away.
Thankfully I managed to get the car home very gingerly and I remember the sense of relief I had when I turned in to our close, trying very hard not to hit one of our neighbour’s cars, and saw the lights of home.
Home represented safety, security and Simon who had more of an idea of what was wrong with the car than me. Home was my SANCTUARY. And that is the part of our ethos that we are going to look at today.
If we look in the dictionary for what the word Sanctuary means, we read it can mean a holy place or a consecrated building. When we read about the sanctuary in the Old Testament it refers to the temple in Jerusalem or the tabernacle where the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence was. Lots of the psalms talk about coming into God’s sanctuary in order to have an experience of him. A place of awe and wonder as the psalmists realise that they are in the presence of holy God.
In the Old testament it also meant a place where fugitives were entitled to immunity from arrest or execution. In Exodus 21 God institutes the principle that if someone injures another person unintentionally then they can flee to a place of safety in order to escape retribution.
But the meaning of sanctuary that we’re going to look at this morning is that sanctuary is a place of protection, refuge, retreat and shelter. And in order to do that we’re going to look at a very famous parable but maybe with a different emphasis than we’re used to.
We’re going to look at the parable of the lost son in Luke 15. Let’s firstly look at the context. Jesus had been making waves with the religious establishment. In the chapters before he had been healing on the sabbath which was a big no no for the Pharisees and he had been introducing the idea that the people who thought they were acceptable to God might be a lot farer away from God than they would presume. And so when we meet Jesus in Luke 15 he is chatting and hanging out with ‘sinners and tax collectors’ all the while being observed by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Let’s see what it says.
READ LUKE 15: 1-2, 11-32
If you have been in the Christian world for any amount of time I am sure you have heard this parable or story from Jesus. And most of the time we focus on the fact that the lost son (or the Prodigal) is a picture of how someone becomes a Christian. They realise that they are sinful and come back to the Father.
But today we are going to zoom in on two other aspects of the story- the Father’s House and the Older Brother’s Room.
Remember Jesus was trying in this parable to portray what God’s love was like to people who had a fixed idea about it that wasn’t necessarily accurate. We tend to think of the word Prodigal as meaning wayward, but its real meaning is ‘recklessly spendthrift’. It means to spend until you have nothing left. So the term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as the younger son. The father’s reaction to the son was literally reckless and we’re going to see how.
1. The Father’s House is a place of Freedom v 12
Let’s look at verse 12. In Jewish culture the younger of two sons was entitled to a third of his father’s property. Even if the son received the property as a gift, Jewish culture dictated that he shouldn’t spend the money while his father was alive. To do so was to say that he considered his father to be dead. It was the rudest thing a son could do to his father. It would result in shame at the synagogue for him.
Jesus’s listeners would presume a certain response from the father to the request from the son. Maybe a disownment or at least a public telling off. But not this father. He doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t retaliate to protect his social status. He gives his son the freedom to go. His love for his son is stronger than his need for social approval and so he waits for his son to come home.
What a beautiful picture of how God treats us. We have free will. Why? Because God wants our love and devotion to be freely given, not pressured out of us. He longs for us to come to him because we know that there is no place like home with the Father.
So the Father’s house is a place of freedom.
2. The Father’s House is a place of Generosity v 17-19
Let’s look at verse 17-19. The son knew that everyone in his father’s house was treated with respect. Each person was valued- even a hired servant. But notice that the hired servants weren’t just given enough to survive. They had food to spare. Such was the generosity of his father. He was a top employer!
The father’s house is a place of freedom and generosity.
3. The Father’s House is a place of Welcome and Unconditional Love v 20
This verse is another one that we can easily pass over when we read it with Western eyes. Jesus’s hearers might have expected several responses from a Jewish father who sees his son walking home, splattered with pig dung.
A reasonable father might close the door or at least get his son to wash before he gave him a piece of his mind. He might ask him what he’s been doing before punishing him.
But, the father rejects all these seemingly common sense solutions in favour of doing something that would have completely scandalised Jesus’s audience. He didn’t wait for him to knock and then be summoned in to a side room by a servant. While he was far off, the father runs to his son, throws his arms around him and kisses him!
As a general rule, distinguished middle eastern men didn’t run. They would never pick up their robes and bare their legs like a young boy. Then the father hugs the boy, breaking another rule of social etiquette. Embracing was considered undignified for an old person. But that’s what the father did. – unconcerned about what people might think or about his reputation. What an unreasonable reckless, prodigal response!
The father’s house is a place of freedom and generosity, welcome and unconditional love.
4. The Father’s House is a place of Forgiveness and Restoration v 22-24
At this point of the story Jesus’s readers might think that the father had done enough for his son. To be a servant in his father’s house would be generous enough, but the father is not content with welcome.
The father offers forgiveness and restoration. He treats the son as an honoured guest. The best robe is put around him which would have been the father’s own robe- a sign of restored standing within the family. The son receives a signet ring which symbolises authority. The shoes are also significant.Free men wore shoes; slaves went bare foot. This restored son would return as a free person. A fattened calf was killed. Steak was reserved for special occasions. The son who yesterday ate with pigs, dines today on steak.
By doing all this, the father is saying “I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debt; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly grovelled. You are not going to EARN your way back into the family, I am simply going to take you back. I will cover your nakedness with the robes of my office and honour”.
The father’s house is a place of freedom and generosity, welcome, unconditional love, forgiveness and restoration. What a beautiful picture of what our heavenly father is like. He gives us free will. He is so, so generous to us. He welcomes us into his embrace, forgives us and restores us. Hallelujah! How awesome He is.
And at this point, if this were a Hollywood blockbuster, we might expect the credits to start rolling as Tom Hanks and Matt Damon (or whoever!) walk off into the sunset. Some of Jesus’ listeners would be cheering as they clock on to the fact that Jesus is talking about them being lost sons and God being the father in the story. But remember there were 2 groups of people listening to Jesus. And the second group weren’t cheering. You can imagine them bristling with indignation- “How can it be that easy?! Surely the son has to obey the law before he can be invited back into the father’s house?” And to add insult to injury, Jesus continues the story with a massive sting in the tail.
5. The Older Brother’s Room is a place of Jealousy, resentment and works not grace v 28-30
There’s no warm welcome from the older brother. He’s not running up to his little bro and giving him an affectionate head scrub like older brothers sometimes do!
READ VERSES 28-30
Such foolish forgiveness on the part of the father offends the older son. He demands justice and fairness. Where is the punishment due to this disgrace to the family name? Where’s the party to honour the elder son’s faithful work? At the moment the younger son is found, the older son is lost. Like the scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus, the elder son refuses to join the party.
Before we look at the response of the father to the older son’s outburst, let’s apply all this to our ethos of sanctuary.
Remember that the father’s house was a place of freedom. In John 8: 36 Jesus says that if the Son sets you free you are free indeed. The apostle Paul talks a lot about being free in Christ. And we rejoice in that don’t we? But do we also believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are also free? Free to express their worship to God in the way they feel comfortable? Free to serve in the way they feel God is leading them? Or do we consciously or unconsciously put burdens or have expectations of people that we don’t apply to ourselves?
The father’s house was a place of generosity. Are we known as generous people? Generous- not just with our money but with our time, our talents, our homes, and in view of what we’ve just looked at, how we view what WE presume are failings in others.
The father’s house was a place of welcome and unconditional love. When people enter this building, do they feel that? Do they feel part of the family or do they feel like a gate crasher at a party? Do we mirror the unconditional love and acceptance of the father or do we consciously or subconsciously, like the older brother give over the impression that in order to be acceptable, there are certain rules to follow or that in order to be part of ‘our gang’ they have to become like us first in order to be ‘worthy’ of our love or notice? Are we more ready to accept people who are like us? In the same generation? The same ethnic background? Speak the same language? Have similar jobs to us?
The father’s house was a place of forgiveness and restoration. How are we at that? Do we easily take offence? Hold a grudge? Say or do things that are deliberately hurtful? Avoid people or stop talking to people if we disagree with them or if they hurt our feelings? It’s much easier to withdraw into ourselves as a protection mechanism than it is to go and seek restoration isn’t it? Or if we are the ones who are told we are in the wrong, how do we react? Are we dismissive? “I don’t know what they’re upset about. They’re just far too sensitive” or are we like the father and open our arms, seeking to restore our relationship with that person.
In Matthew 18: 21, Peter asks Jesus the question “Lord, how many times shall I forgive me brother or sister who sins against me? Up to 7 times?” Peter thought he was being super spiritual with his question! Peter thinks that 7 times is at least fulfilling the law. What was Jesus’ answer? 70 times 7. This wasn’t to test Peter’s multiplication skills. It was to suggest that any set number misses the point of God’s extensive mercy to us which, if we’ve experienced it, we must extend to others. (Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy)
At this point, I’m sure we’re all cheering (albeit metaphorically!) But when I really look deep into my own heart I’ve got to admit that often I am like the older brother. Sometimes I feel resentful of others. Sometimes I only want to be generous to the people l like. Sometimes I only want to spend time with the people who are like me. Anyone else feel like that?
So lastly, how does the father react to the older brother? This is beautiful news to those of us with older brother tendencies- which I guess could be all of us at some time or other. The father reacts in a way that is on the one hand firm but on the other unconditionally loving.
READ VERSES 31-32
The older son in his anger calls his brother “this son of yours” – denouncing any relationship with him. But the father responds back to him “my son”. You can imagine the father looking at his older son with love but also sadness in his eyes. He doesn’t fly off the handle. He lovingly encourages his other son to ‘come out of his room’ and join the party. To acknowledge that he is also in need of his father’s mercy, forgiveness and love. To be swept up into the restorative arms of his father.
Those of us who are parents or even if you are not you might remember this happening to you as a child- that beautiful moment when after maybe a disagreement or having to correct your child, you draw your child into your arms and have a huggle. What are you doing? You are restoring your relationship. Reminding them of your unconditional love.
And you can imagine the father opening his arms to the older brother wanting a huggle in the same way that he had one with the younger son. What we don’t know is whether the son in the story responded to that. What a cliff hanger! But maybe, just maybe Jesus left it open ended on purpose. Those of us with older brother tendencies - How will we respond? Will we run into the arms of our heavenly father and experience all the wonders of sanctuary that he offers? Freedom, generosity, welcome, unconditional love, forgiveness and restoration.