25/3/01 6 p.m. Luke 15:1-3,11-32.

151Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3Then Jesus told them this parable:... 11 "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. 13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17"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! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So 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. 21"The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22"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. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate. 25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27`Your brother has come,' he replied, `and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' 31" `My son,' the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

PRAY: Father God, out of your great love for me, everlasting love, love upon love, take me back as your child. Amen.

A few weeks ago one of my sister's friends had been shopping in Norwich and returned to find that his motorcycle had been stolen. He immediately went to the Police Station to report this. They took all the usual details, make, model, the registration number, and his details.

He returned home on the bus rather fed up and was delighted to receive a phone call from the police within a couple of hours to say they had found the motorbike, undamaged in a local car park. Then the man remembered. He had gone to park his motorbike in it's usual place, found it was full and parked it in that nearby car park. But he had forgotten all about this and returned to the usual parking place. It hadn't been stolen, but lost. He was very embarrassed.

I guess we have all lost something important at one time or other. Luke 15 is about the lost : the lost sheep; the lost coin; and the lost son.

The last of these parables is widely known as the parable of the Prodigal Son. Does anyone know what prodigal means ? Wasteful. This title ignores the fact that there were two sons, and that these parable were told against the Pharisees who moaned about Jesus mixing with 'sinners', verse 2. Perhaps this parable should be known as the Parable of the Forgiving Father. It is around him that this story revolves.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law thought that salvation was earned by being religious. So the religious outcasts should be excluded and condemned.

Jesus showed that salvation is a free gift from God to be accepted by anyone. Therefore, Jesus mixed with the outcasts to show that they mattered to God.

The parable of forgiving father is about two reactions to the forgiveness of the father.

The humility and joy of the younger, wayward son. The sullen reaction of the older son. The father represents God who is willing to forgive those who turn to him. The younger son the tax collectors and sinners. The older son the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

A younger son would receive half of the share of his fathers estate that the older brother was entitled to. So the younger brother would have received a third of his father's estate.

He squandered this on wild living. No other details are given. After this financial disaster comes a natural one. A famine. So he becomes a swine herd. Can you imagine anything more distasteful to a Jew ? Even these ceremonially unclean animals got better food than the son.

He comes to his senses. Realises that even his father's servants are better off than he is. The sinner has realised what a desperate situation he is in because of his sin. It cuts him off from his father and his family.

He decides to confess his sin before his father. Showing the humility and dependence upon God's mercy that is needed to follow God.

A Vicar was proudly congratulating himself on his latest sermon as the congregation was leaving. But one parishioner said : "Your sermon was too long by half."

The Vicar smugly replied : " Ah, well brother, remember that we are exhorted to declare the milk of the Word."

"Well make it condensed milk next time!"

Humility comes from 'Humus' Latin for earth. It means being down to earth about who we are. It is not about low self-esteem but realism.

We have a Saviour who humbled himself. Who left the glory of heaven to come down to earth. To serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

The son would have been practising his opening line as he was walking home. Apprehensive of what would happen. But before he can speak the father drapes himself round his son's neck, verse 20b. This broke all the rules of Middle Eastern protocol. No father would greet a rebellious son in this way. But the love of the father, and his delight at seeing his lost son return sweeps this to one side.

The son would have been happy to return as a slave, but the father wants his son back. The father throws a big party to welcome the wayward son. The son has come from destitution to complete restoration.

The party is a picture of the celebrations that go on in heaven when someone turns to God through Jesus. The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin told earlier in this chapter both conclude with rejoicing by the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents.

The younger son was given a long robe of distinction, a signet ring of authority, and sandals like a son, because slaves went barefoot. These show that the he was fully accepted by his father. The fattened calf, reserved for special occasions was killed and eaten. This showed the joy of the father.

The older son returns to hear the music, to see the dancing and discovers that his brother has returned and the fattened calf has been killed to celebrate this. He is indignant. He makes wild allegations about his brother spending the money on prostitutes.

The older son was separated from his father too. He was cut off by his anger and resentment. He thought that love and acceptance had to be worked for, deserved. Thousands of hurt people around the world have made the same mistake.

There has been a reversal of position. The brother who was on the outside is welcomed inside. The brother who was inside has excluded himself.

The father is also compassionate to the elder son. He tries to persuade him to come in. The elder brother makes a serious complaint. He says, in essence "I am worthy. You are unfair and ungrateful !"

The real problem is not this. He still has two thirds of his fathers estate. The animals belonged to him and he could have done what he like with them at anytime.

The real problem is that he is self-centred and self-righteous. He is too caught up in the idea of justice to show any joy at the return of his brother.

Note he refers to the younger son as the "son of yours", verse 30, not "brother ".

Jesus didn't tell us how the story ended. I suppose the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees and teachers of the law gives us a clue.

Like the father God wants everyone to be reconciled with him. He wants all of us to be part of his family. How are we reconciled to God ? Through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has come out to meet us. Revealed himself and his love for us through the life and death of Jesus. When Jesus died he took upon himself the punishment for our sins which is separation from God. So that we can be free from this barrier in our relationship with God. Free to live for him, and not ourselves. As the son discovered true freedom is not to be free from responsibilities. True freedom is to be loved and live in the security and responsibility that this brings.

That love was always there for the younger son. Yet he had to accept it. To turn from his current way of life and back to a life lived in a right relationship with his father. To admit that he had done wrong and to ask for his father's forgiveness. He came as a slave and was accepted as a son. This is a pattern of how we should respond to God's love shown in the cross of Jesus.

We all need to do it. Again and again. There are times when, like the younger son we all seek to find our security in wealth, popularity, possessions, and pleasures. But these things do not last. Only the love of God the Father lasts, and we need to turn to him afresh in our walk with him.

Or we can be like the older son. Think that we can earn or deserve God's love and end up rejecting his offer. Think that we are better than others who have been chosen by God and alienate ourselves from him and his family. But God gives us so much than we can ever deserve or imagine.

This story has two points to make :

1) Repentance means an absolute reversal of status. The lost son becomes a family member again. The father's acceptance of his penitent son is complete. This is God's undeserved favour shown us in Christ. This is why God looks for those who are lost.

2) Others should share the joy of God and of the angels when someone comes to God. Reconciliation not only involves God and the individual, but also the individual and the family of believers. There is no room for the thinking that the church is a closed club and that new members pose a threat. The idea that God could accept tax collectors was offensive to the Pharisees. By looking down on these sinners and the one who reached out to them, they condemned themselves.

We have to remind ourselves that we are in God's kingdom as forgiven sinners and not because we have earned our way into his presence. If we are honest there is a Pharisee in many of us, like the older son, thinking that we are better than others. We would like to think that God has called us because we deserve it, or because we are loveable. But true love is unconditional.

We need Jesus to be put right with God. He is God's way of saying, "I love you," to us, indeed to the whole world. One of the prayers of thanksgiving after Communion starts in this way : "Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home..."

As Christians we can be encouraged that we have such a loving, merciful God who reaches out to those who are lost. We can thank God that our whole salvation rests on this. That we are children of God. Loved and forgiven. Whatever we have done in the past. This is the good news of Christianity.

As all believers are unconditionally accepted by God, it is not for us to judge others who he has called. Yes, there are times when it is right to query the conduct of a fellow Christian, in humility, by drawing something to their attention that appears contrary to God's will. Yet we should beware of condemning and rejecting those who God has chosen.

We should realise that have a part to play in reaching out with God's love. We are called to work with God to bring in those who are lost. Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended, "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations..." Matthew 28:20.

We are called to go out and find them, making disciples, baptising and teaching them to obey Jesus teaching.

We are to be like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep, and the woman looking for her lost coin. We cannot wait for those who are lost to come to us. We need to show the love of Christ to them in word and deed. We can invite them to church. We cannot expect them to come to walk into church saying "Hello, I would like to become a Christian." It is about reaching out to people with the love of God in Jesus wherever and whenever we can.

We should also rejoice and welcome those who turn to God. You may think that this goes without saying. That Christians would be delighted when someone comes to faith. There have been occasions at both churches where we have served that Christians have been told this and they looked as pleased as if I had just told them that I had run over their dog.

So let us thank God for his mercy.

Work with him to find the lost.

And rejoice when someone comes into God's family.

Prayer of Theresa of Avila :

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

no hands but yours, no feet but yours;

yours are the eyes through which he is to look with compassion on the world;

yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;

and yours the hands with which he is to bless us now.